The clock was started by the National Electric Company of Bulgaria, which gave the official go-ahead to Atomstroyexport, the Russian company that deals with overseas nuclear projects. This means that the basic construction cycle can begin, building machinery can be delivered to the site and work can start in earnest. Infrastructure is already being put into place, and a tender has been announced for Bulgarian building contractors.
One cannot but be surprised, however, at how long the preparatory period for the project has lasted. This prompts the question of whether the construction schedule will be met. The first unit is to be put into operation in five years. So far, Atomstroyexport thinks that, notwithstanding new delays and unforeseen circumstances, there is no cause to worry.
The main cause of the delays was the complicated procedure of approvals and thrashing out of technical details that the project had to go through. Atomstoryexport was declared the winner of the Belene Nuclear Plant tender in the autumn of 2006. It took another year to get the approval of the European Union (EUR standards, although basically the same as those of the IAEA, differ in some details). After meticulous expert analysis, EUR eventually had to admit that the Russian project meets all European requirements for nuclear power plants.
The approval of the European Union completed the legal portfolio, and Atomstoyexport could finally concentrate on more substantive matters. One final step remained, however: the official signing of the contract between Atomstoyexport and the National Electrical Company of Bulgaria. The ceremony took place during President Putin's visit to Bulgaria on January 2008.
The road now seemed to be clear for work to begin, but it turned out that another bureaucratic hurdle had to be cleared: approval was needed from the Bulgarian Ministry of Regional Development. That agency also took its time studying the Conceptual Project of the Nuclear Power Plant before giving its okay.
Time dragged on. And time is money. However, the contractor displayed truly Russian patience: the Bulgarian project means too much for Russia. Russia waited out the European pause in nuclear power plant construction that dragged on from the Soviet times, and winning the prestigious tender represented breaking back into the Western market of NPP construction. The Belene NPP is the first Russian nuclear project on the EU territory. This nuclear power plant is important not only economically but also politically, as it bolsters Russia's position in the Balkans and in Europe.
Atomstoyexport won the contract against competition from some powerful companies, including Skoda from the Czech Republic, Toshiba from Japan, and the Anglo-American Westinghouse consortium. Bulgaria brought in more than 200 experts from 8 countries to assess the technical aspects of the project, including major consultancies such as Parsons and Deloitte Central Ltd. After all this analysis the advantages of the Russian offer were so obvious that the experts had to recognize the model to be not only the most economical, but also the safest and most durable (it is designed to give at least 60 years of guaranteed operation).
The success of Russian nuclear power plants in the world market is in general unsurprising, since they meet the highest quality and safety standards. The AES-92 project, which formed the basis of the Belene Nuclear Plant, is a modern version of the VVER reactor that long and successfully operated in Bulgaria at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, until the European Union took a mysterious dislike to it.
The new-generation AES-92 project being implemented today raises no such questions. It uses two new-generation VVER-1000 reactors, which have been updated to make them still more reliable and economical. The Belene project has a unique combination of active and passive safety systems that ensures a maximum level of protection.
When planning for emergencies the designers proceeded from worst-case scenarios, such as a total power cut, rupture of the reactor body or even a plane crashing into the power plant's roof. The reactor building has a double protective shell, the inner one made from steel and the outer from reinforced concrete. What makes the safety system unique is the so-called molten-core catcher, an original Russian idea.
Reflecting the globalised nature of the market for atomic power plant construction and the growing wish to bridge the energy gap, Russia in 2007 signed a contract with the Carsib consortium, comprising the companies Areva and Siemans, to supply equipment, including control systems, for the Belene site.
Another major advantage of the Russian project is its reasonable price. It will cost Bulgaria 3.997 billion euros for two 1000-megawatt units. That is still a hefty sum for a country as poor as Bulgaria, so it is looking for investors. Paribas Bank has already issued a 350 million loan. Russia is prepared to pay the whole sum. Bulgaria knows what it is paying for: the Belene Nuclear Power Plant will restore Bulgaria's sense of energy security.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.